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Published: Saturday, 2/16/2002

Eating out tonight? Take plenty of cash, plastic to cover costs

BLADE RESTAURANT CRITIC

What goes up must come down, right?

Wrong, if you look at what it costs to eat out. At least, it shows no sign of coming down.

Just a year ago, I devoted a Bill of Fare column to the rising costs of running a restaurant. The bad news begins with the premium paid for once-exotic foods, like Dover sole, and familiar foods out of season, such as ripe, juicy strawberries, say, in midwinter.

Add to food cost the price of labor, from chef to busboy. For some of the semiskilled, this is the cost of education as they work their way through college, but for others it's the cost of living. In either case, it enters into the price of eating out.

Tipping needs a separate paragraph, for while most of us understand that tips supplement a rock-bottom wage, we may not digest the fact that what's reasonably expected has gone up, like everything else. Ten per cent used to be expected, but now, for good service, it's risen through the teens to around 20 per cent. Aha, says the customer, at least that's one expense we can control. But no, for if tips don't bring a competent server's income up to at least a minimal living wage, the total cost of good service too will be transferred to the check, swallowed up in the calculation of the restaurant's bottom line.

To quantify the picture, I've collected averages from several area restaurants in 1991, without identifying any in particular, and matched them against what dinner costs in the same or comparable restaurants today. Even though I'm closer to the restaurant scene than most casual diners, I've been shocked by the numbers.

Gourmet dinners are custom-built dinners, thus labor-intensive and costly. Ten years ago, you could expect the per-person tab, adding in the cost of one drink, tax, and a 20 per cent tip (which the published numbers in our weekly reviews did not and do not include), to be a shade under $35. Today, your wallet or your plastic should be good for almost $60, a 66 per cent increase.

Restaurants in resort areas generally rely on seasonal business, and by and large must set comparatively high prices, now and 10 years ago. However, in 10 years their prices have risen 43 per cent, relatively less than other restaurants outside the urban area.

Compare that with what's happened in good, three-star eating places. Here, prices have nearly doubled. Expect to pay close to $31 on average.

Ethnic restaurants? I couldn't put together a representative sample because of atypical, wildly variant prices. But my consistent impression is that though a Chinese or Tex-Mex or Italian dinner, for example, costs more today that it used to, the price in most establishments is much less than the quality and quantity deserves.

Going through dozens of 1991 reviews, I realized another shocker: the number of restaurants that have since gone out of business. Of the first 10 I selected, nine are only memories. Gone are the Willows, John D. Wesley's Bistro, Syd & Diane's, and Maximillian's just to name a few.

Restaurant eating is more expensive than it used to be, but then, it's not an easy business, with slim margins, cranky customers, and necessary reliance on all sorts of uncertainties.



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